SpaceX counters FAA claims that its reentering Starlink satellites could hurt or kill people

Artist's illustration of space junk orbiting Earth.
(Image credit: NASA)

SpaceX has asked the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to correct a report warning that components from reentering Starlink constellation satellites could injure or even kill people on the ground.

The FAA, a regulatory body that licenses the launch of satellites, issued a report, called "Risk Associated with Reentry Disposal of Satellites from Proposed Large Constellations in Low Earth Orbit," on Oct. 5.

The report stated that SpaceX's Starlink satellites will account for 85% of the risk to people on the ground and aviation from reentering space junk by the middle of the next decade.

Related: The Kessler Syndrome and the space debris problem

"By 2035, if the expected large constellation growth is realized and debris from Starlink satellites survive reentry, the total number of hazardous fragments surviving reentries each year is expected to reach 28,000, and the casualty expectation, the number of individuals on the ground predicted to be injured or killed by debris surviving the reentries of satellites being disposed from these constellations, would be 0.6 per year, which means that one person on the planet would be expected to be injured or killed every two years," a passage within the report read.

There are currently around 5,000 Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO), accounting for a majority of all active satellites in LEO right now. SpaceX is building a constellation of 12,000 satellites, with plans to expand Starlink to 40,000 spacecraft.

SpaceX reacted strongly to the report in a letter dated Oct. 9, describing the claims of potential risk of injury and death associated with Starlink as "preposterous, unjustified and inaccurate," CNN reported.

The letter claims that the report's analysis, part of which was undertaken by The Aerospace Corporation, was "deeply flawed" and asserts that it is inapplicable to Starlink satellites, as they completely burn up on reentry, unlike other, earlier satellites such as Iridium spacecraft, which are noted in the report.

"To be clear, SpaceX's satellites are designed and built to fully demise during atmospheric reentry during disposal at end of life, and they do so," CNN reported SpaceX's letter as stating.

SpaceNews noted that astrophysicist and spaceflight tracker Jonathan McDowell stated that more than 350 Starlink satellites have deorbited, with no reports of their debris reaching the ground. 

SpaceNews reported that the FAA is reviewing SpaceX's letter, with CNN noting that an Aerospace Corporation statement issued following the SpaceX letter said that its technical team is in communication with SpaceX and others to "review and update the data."

SpaceX is far from the only space actor planning and building so-called megaconstellations in LEO. A recent European Space Agency report stated that humanity's behavior in space is "unsustainable" with regard to space debris. 

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Andrew Jones
Contributing Writer

Andrew is a freelance space journalist with a focus on reporting on China's rapidly growing space sector. He began writing for in 2019 and writes for SpaceNews, IEEE Spectrum, National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, New Scientist and others. Andrew first caught the space bug when, as a youngster, he saw Voyager images of other worlds in our solar system for the first time. Away from space, Andrew enjoys trail running in the forests of Finland. You can follow him on Twitter @AJ_FI.